Mark Danner

The ethical questions involving torture of prisoners are lost in the debate over the war in Iraq

Author: Peter Steinfels

The coming week’s celebration of Hanukkah revolves around the delightful story of a tiny amount of consecrated oil that miraculously burned for eight days in December 164 B.C. when the Maccabees recaptured and rededicated the Temple after it had been desecrated by the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes.

There is another celebrated story, however, this one grim rather than delightful, connected with the persecution by Antiochus and the saga of the Maccabean revolt. The story of Hannah and her seven sons appears in various sources but most extensively in the Second Book of Maccabees, a Greek translation of a Hebrew text eventually incorporated into the Christian Bible and found in Roman Catholic Bibles today although not included in Hebrew scriptures or, later, in Protestant Bibles.

As part of Antiochus’s campaign to break the fidelity of the Jews to their way of life, Hannah and her sons are ordered to eat swine. When they refuse, each of them, one by one and in view of the others, is successively subjected to gruesome mutilations, scalding in oil, and death. All modern English translations feature, in these passages, one of the ugliest words in the language: ”torture.”

It is a reminder that torture opens one of the greatest chasms in morality. In even the most morally unsophisticated forms of popular storytelling, it is certainly not violence in itself, not even killing, that unmistakably separates good guys from evil ones. It is torture. Heroes may kill; villains torture — Nazi commanders, soulless drug dealers, despots on this planet or in outer space.

In debates among contemporary ethicists about the notion of acts that qualify as ”intrinsically evil,” torture has always been a prime candidate. Within Roman Catholicism, the discussion of intrinsic evils has recently focused on abortion and euthanasia. But when Pope John Paul II weighed in on the question in his 1993 encyclical ”The Splendor of Truth,” the list of other actions he described as evil ”in themselves, independently of circumstances” included, along with genocide and slavery, ”physical and mental torture.”

But, really, is this a topic to bring up on the eve of a season of sparkling candles, childlike exuberance and family gift-giving?

One could reply that the issue is posed by the nomination of Alberto R. Gonzales, who as White House counsel helped frame the administration’s policies about treatment of prisoners of war. Or that it is posed, more recently, by the International Committee of the Red Cross’s newly reported findings that practices ”tantamount to torture” have continued at the United States’ prison at Guanatánamo Bay.

But is this a topic that anyone wants to examine ever? Last April, the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked the world and put the treatment of prisoners in the headlines for several weeks. Then, Congressional hearings faded, military investigations were begun in all directions, a few individuals were tried without great publicity — and attention shifted to the presidential campaign, where no one was going to touch the issue.

As Mark Danner points out in his book ”Torture and Truth” (New York Review Books), in the end the lurid photos may have deflected the central question of what role torture may have played, or yet be playing, in American policy for waging a war on terror into the question of individual indiscipline and sadism — ”Animal House on the night shift,” as former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger called the Abu Ghraib atrocities.

Mr. Danner’s book is valuable because to the 50 pages of articles he originally wrote for The New York Review of Books, the volume adds hundreds of pages of the relevant Justice and Defense Department memorandums, the photos, prisoners’ depositions, Red Cross reports and the military’s own major investigations of Abu Ghraib. Motivated readers can judge for themselves.

Although the question of torture has justly become part of the debate about the war in Iraq, the question cannot be reduced to differences over that war. The Guantánamo prisoners, after all, were captured in Afghanistan, in a military action that had overwhelming support from the citizenry.

Gathering intelligence is clearly crucial to the entire war on terror. Long before the invasion of Iraq, voices here and there began to ask about the legitimacy of torture, sometimes treading a fine line where it is hard to tell whether the aim is to uphold a moral precept or undermine it. It became imperative to define what constituted, in government talk, ”aggressive interrogation” or ”exceptional techniques” and what was, in blunt talk, torture.

In this regard, the documents in ”Torture and Truth” seem to operate on three levels. At the highest level, the thrust of the Justice Department memorandums seems entirely toward giving interrogators maximum leeway rather than worrying about setting limits. At the middle level, the Defense Department spells out permissible methods of increasingly aggressive interrogation with a degree of detail, benign examples and insistence on safeguards that mostly suggest approaches definitely this side of torture.

At the lowest level, however, the appalling reports from the field give an entirely different picture of what ”sleep adjustment,” ”stress positions,” ”environmental manipulation,” ”removal of clothing” and ”increasing anxiety by use of aversions” can mean in practice.

In an analysis of the torture question written this week for Religion News Service, David Anderson notes that ”nearly absent from the three major administration reports on the abuse at Abu Ghraib is any discussion of the ethical issues involved.”

The report from Mr. Schlesinger’s panel has eight appendices, the last of them rightly described by Mr. Anderson as ”a cursory 2 1/3 pages on ethical issues.” The panel calls for more ”ethics education programs” without suggesting what their substance might be.
Mr. Danner notes how much of the 9/11 commission’s much-admired reconstruction of the World Trade Center plot depended on information from high-level Qaeda conspirators held in places and interrogated in ways that no one, apparently even top officials of the government, wants to know more about.

The most disturbing aspect of ”Torture and Truth” is not anything it reveals that has been hidden but how much it reveals that is not hidden — but that the nation chooses not to look at.